Back when I started diving in March my friend who had accompanied me to Koh Tao was amazed by my sudden interest in the marine life. Apparently I have a short attention span in all other things so the idea that I would stare at fish for hours at a time and not get bored was beyond her. And while diving takes a bit more than just staring at fish, I guess it was a puzzling development considering that I have no patience whatsoever and wildlife watching of any kind needs exactly that.

However, when I first got to Borneo in July it seemed that my wildlife interests were purely reserved for underwater creatures. Many of my fellow travelers in my Intrepid group had specifically come to see orangutans, I only came with instructions to take pictures for my friend who loves all kinds monkeys, but with no real interest in them myself.


That changed when I was at Japamala Resort on Tioman island and got visited by a group of monkeys during an impromptu yoga session on my patio. They were cute and cheeky and I was mesmerized. Upon arrival in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the state of Sabah, things only got better. Borneo is full of ‘real’ jungle with real animals and home to 22 endemic mammal species and over 6,000 endemic plants. Within our first days, we stumbled over big and small lizards, bat families, butterflies, and creepy crawlies. I will spare you the picture of an albino cockroach, but I may or may not have carried a kitten through the jungle. And even all of that was just the beginning…

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The Kinabatangan River in northeast Sabah is known for its inhabitants on and off shore and a perfect spot for river safaris. The one thing one cannot find in Borneo are giraffes, my favorite animals, and so I settled on the second best thing to make the top of my wish list: elephants. Or better said, the Bornean Pygmy elephant. They are however rare, so I was told to curb my enthusiasm and settle instead for Silver Leaf and Proboscis monkeys, macaques, and hornbills. We saw all of those and much more, including snakes lazing in the trees and a crocodile which charged at our tiny boat.

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But finally an hour into our safari the near impossible: a herd of Pygmy elephants. Pygmy might be misleading in their case as they still grow about two meters tall; nothing pygmy about that and quite impressive especially when you face a family of 25 individuals.

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They grazed next to the water’s edge, rubbed themselves down with leaves, sprayed water around to cool down, and climbed on top of each other to play all the while looking incredibly adorable with their little Dumbo faces and non-stop smiles. I had a non-stop smile as well, a rare moment when the world was completely alright and these majestic creatures seemed to agree with me. At this point I thought my trip had peaked. What could possibly be better than a Pygmy elephant?

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This feeling lasted all but three days when we got to Turtle Island. Turtle Island as the name implies is an island where Hawksbill and Green turtles come to lay eggs and in the name of conservation you are actually allowed to watch. Being a severely endangered species, turtles are tagged and monitored in these parts of Asia and their procreation is not left to chance.

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Mother turtles who come to shore will be intercepted by rangers and their eggs taken to a hatchery. Tiny baby turtles will be taken back into the ocean upon hatching with much better chances to take a dip without interference from predators and other unfortunate events. And if witnessing all of this isn’t special enough you might get very lucky and meet a stray baby tickling your toes in the sand before making its way into the waves. Seriously, what can be cuter than a baby turtle in action?

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This time, that thought only lasted one day, until we arrived in Sepilok with its Sun bear, Proboscis monkey and orangutan sanctuaries. Proboscis monkeys can only be found on Borneo and for the orangutans it is one of only two places in the world where they still roam free. We hadn’t been lucky enough to see any in the wild yet, so seeing them at the Sepilok rehabilitation centre was the next best thing.

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I must admit that I was a little indifferent at this point. I mean, how much better could it get after the Pygmy elephants, the Red Leaf monkeys, the bats, the baby turtles?

It took about two minutes in the orangutan nursery to show me how much better it could get. The centre tries to provide orphaned babies with all the skills they eventually need to survive in the real world. The nursery is a place where they learn to interact with others as well as necessary orangutan skills like being a trapeze artist in the jungle. Visitors can watch from a window in the distance. For us, that meant some toddlers putting on a show, then a mother and her baby coming to ‘hang out’, and finally a misbehaving little one being put in the naughty corner by his caretaker. Even orangutans have a super-nanny.

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A second attraction is the feeding platform where orangutans can come twice a day for a banana and milk snack. Food is kept repetitive and boring as to encourage them to find their own in the surrounding jungle. Lucky for us, the mum and baby were too lazy to venture out and some cheeky macaques snuck in to steal a treat too. While the baby was doing first tentative stretches on a rope mum drenched him in milk, making him a perfect model for the Got Milk? campaign. Just another day in the jungle…

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Even the coolest of the visitors – yes, I’m looking at you handsome guy with your supermodel girlfriend – had a hard time to contain their excitement in the face of so much cuteness and it was even harder to leave.


Mind you, I didn’t know the hardest part wasn’t to say goodbye to baby orangutan or carrying a kitten through the Bornean jungle in 35 degrees, the hardest part was sitting back home editing through a 1,001 cute faces, deciding which pictures to show you.

If you are into wildlife watching I highly recommend Intrepid’s Sabah Adventure tour to which they kindly invited me. Do take binoculars and a good zoom lens for your camera!

All images by Annika.

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!